This smash-hit Broadway play – and adults-only puppet comedy – gets its Australian premiere
Robert Askins’ Hand to God was nominated for best play at the 2015 Tony Awards, along with several nominations for its actors. Billed as the love child of Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, it’s an irreverent, foul-mouthed comedy about satanic puppets and the darker impulses lurking under the surface of all good Christian souls. Directed by Gary Abrahams and featuring a stellar cast that includes Alison Whyte, Gyton Grantely and Grant Piro, it seems on paper like a guaranteed winner. In practice, it’s anything but.
Set in a Texas church hall, the play centres on the recently-widowed Margery (Whyte), who is helping out Pastor Greg (Piro) with a puppet class that includes trouble maker Timmy (Jake Speer), awkward Jessica (Morgana O’Reilly) and Margery’s introverted son Jason (Grantley). When Jason’s hand puppet Tyrone starts to speak out of turn, spewing forth expletives, insults and sexual come-ons, it seems that the boy is merely finding a way to express the inexpressible thoughts that consume him after the death of his father.
It’s only when Jason rips Tyrone’s head off and then finds him intact on his hand the next morning, that we begin to get a sense of Tyrone’s particular skill set; and it’s only when everyone in the play begins to act on their darker impulses – criminally so, in Margery’s case – that we grasp just who has grafted himself onto the young man’s hand: Satan himself, in the form of a poorly-sewn sock puppet.
The idea of a possessed puppet is actually a fairly common trope, most memorably brought to creepy life in a section from the 1945 British horror anthology Dead of Night called The Ventriloquist’s Dummy. But where that story retained a taut psychological ambiguity throughout, Askins makes Tyrone a simple villain in the mode of a medieval morality play. Grantley throws himself into the dual roles, but his constant switches between the capricious puppet and the wide-eyed boy are often imprecise – the guttural voice of Tyrone is often indistinguishable from Jason’s – which means his later attempt to merge the psychologies of Jason and Tyrone simply doesn’t register.
Much of the problem lies with Abrahams’ inability to wrestle with the play’s tonal shifts. Hand to God turns on the unresolved grief of Margery and Jason, but the cartoonish characters and gross-out playing style mean that this never registers. It’s most obvious at the end, where Askins pivots away from puerile humour and into pathos; there’s no way the audience can buy these caricatures as real people, so any genuine emotional depth from them looks like desperation.
The performances are uneven. Piro nails the caricature of Pastor Greg, and is really the only actor on stage who manages to subtly slide this into a more naturalistic register, but his initial clowning also signals to the audience that none of this should be taken seriously. Speer makes a convincingly ardent hooligan, and O’Reilly is sweet as the pragmatic Jessica. Surprisingly, it is Whyte who is least comfortable as the transgressive but racked Margery. A sublime actor capable of mining grief like few others, here she’s all at sea; saddled with a character who does deplorable things for spurious reasons, she hopelessly flails about, and completely misses the opportunity to explore the character’s wilful self-destruction.
Jacob Battista’s set design is detailed and colourful, bringing to mind Sesame Street more than Elm Street, as are Chloe Greaves’ costumes – although there seems to be a veiled reference to Fred Krueger in Jason’s striped jumper. Amelia Lever-Davidson’s lighting is simply bright, and Ian Moorhead’s sound design is underdone, so that any possibility of menace is washed out of the frame. Given that the auditorium of the Alex Theatre has as much atmosphere as a supermarket car park, it needed as much help as it could get.
With a little more emotional veritas and a stronger handle on the creepier aspects of this tale, Vass Productions could have had a minor delight on its hands, although why it would even be nominated for the Tony remains a mystery. Maybe it’s a cultural thing: Australians have become so adept at taking the piss out of our institutions that the idea of swearing in church – which pretty much makes up the bulk of the gags on display here – seems more run-of-the-mill than shockingly funny.